A bold theory concerned with the origin and growth of form and characteristics in nature. This theory was proposed by bio-chemist and plant researcher Rupert Sheldrake in his book A New Science of Life: The Hypothesis of Formative Causation.
For many years, embryologists have used the general term morphogenetic fields to indicate the mysterious factors that influence the development of growth and characteristics in plants and animals. The term is derived from the Greek morphe (form) and genesis (coming into being) and is usually assumed to embrace a complex of inherited characteristics programmed in DNA molecules. Sheldrake's theory, however, proposes a literal interpretation of morphogenetic fields as structures independent of time and space. All the past fields of a given type are available instantly to, or coexist with, subsequent similar systems.
The genes only define parameters within which development takes place and do not determine the future form of the organism. The fertilization of a seed or egg, says Sheldrake, is a "morphogenetic germ" for development that is influenced by "previous systems of which structures similar to these morpho-genetic germs were a part. [It] thus becomes surrounded by, or embedded within, the morphogenetic field of the higher-level system [i.e., the cell is influenced by the tittuse-field, the tissue by the organ-field], which then shapes or moulds the process of development towards the characteristic form."
Sheldrake calls the influence of one morphogenetic field upon another "morphic resonance," involving a new kind of action at a distance, independent of space and time. This influence does not appear to be electromagnetic and may involve some as yet undiscovered method of action, a theory that clear-ly has relevance to such parapsychological phenomena as telepathy and clairvoyance.
Sheldrake's theory applies to crystals as well as to animals and plants. If a new organic compound is crystallized the shape may be merely a matter of chance. Once crystallization has taken place, however, it establishes a morphogenetic field affecting all subsequent crystallizations of that substance, influencing them to take the same form. Successive crystallizations reinforce the field, facilitating future formation of a particular crystal shape. In the same way, future developments of animal or plant species are affected by the establishment of morphogenetic fields in the past. In simplest outline the theory suggests that it is easier to learn something because others have learned it before.
Although Sheldrake does not discuss the implications for parapsychology in detail in his book, his references make it clear that since morphogenetic fields are claimed as independent of space and time they could also act as channels for transmission of information, and are thus related to telepathy and clairvoyance.
The theory had an astonishingly hostile reception by the editors of the journal Nature (September 1981):
"What is to be made of Dr. Rupert Sheldrake's book…. This infuriating tract has been widely hailed by the newspapers and popular science magazines as the 'answer' to materialistic science, and is now well on its way to being a point of reference for the motley crew of creationists, anti-reductionists, neo-Lamarckians and the rest. The author, by training a biochemist and by demonstration a knowledgeable man, is, however, misguided. His book is the best candidate for burning there has been for many years. In reality, Sheldrake's argument is in no sense a scientific argument but is an exercise in pseudoscience. Preposterously, he claims that his hypothesis can be tested … and the text includes half a dozen proposals for experiments that might be carried out to verify that the forms of aggregations of matter are indeed moulded by the hypothetical morphogenetic fields that are supposed to pervade everything. These experiments have in common the attributes of being time-consuming, inconclusive in the sense that it will always be possible to postulate yet another morphogenetic field to account for some awkwardly inconclusive result, and impractical in the sense that no self-respecting grant-making agency will take the proposals seriously…. His book should not be burned (nor even confined to closed shelves in libraries) but, rather, put firmly in its place among the literature of intellectual aberrations."
In correspondence in subsequent issues of Nature, however, readers deplored this "emotional outburst." Clearly the suggestion that experiments should not be undertaken to test a theory because they would be "time-consuming" or "inconclusive" seemed thoroughly unscientific, they wrote, since many scientific theories that appeared at first sight to be "preposterous" were validated by later experiments.
A thoughtful discussion of Sheldrake's theory is a comprehensive article by R. J. M. Rickard in Fortean Times (Spring 1982), which printed a detailed interview and discussion with Sheldrake himself at the home of John Mitchell.
Sheldrake, Rupert. A New Science of Life: The Hypothesis of Formative Causation. London: Blond & Briggs, 1981.
——. The Presence of the Past: Morphic Resonance and the Habits of Nature. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.